The Idea of Having Dedicated Hospital Ships in the Philippine Navy

Through the years, the Philippine Navy aspires of having a dedicated hospital ship along with their plans of acquiring multirole vessels or MRVs which was fruited into what is now considered the two current Landing Platform Docks that comprise the fleet's current setup.

Given the country's vulnerability from natural disasters coming into harm on any of its 7,000 plus islands that the whole nation is composed of, these platforms are something that is needed to address all of the concerns involving logistics and interim basic health platforms, of which this will be discussed in detail on the rest of this article writeup.

The KRI Semarang, a Semarang (Tarlac-designed)-class Landing
Platform Dock was designed to be a hospital ship in service
within the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL).
Image Source.
On the image seen above, we can see the KRI Semarang which is an active Indonesian Navy vessel that is designed as a Landing Platform Dock specialized more like a hospital ship with the Red Cross sign indicated on the vessel itself as it shows similarity in design with the original Makassar-class Landing Platform Docks serving in that same navy with the detailed ones deriving from the Tarlac-class Landing Platform Docks of the Philippine Navy.

Let it be noted that both the KRI Semarang and the Tarlac-class Landing Platform Docks are produced by the same shipbuilding industry which is named the PT PAL (stands for Pernatanan Angkatan Laut) which in itself is a state-owned shipbuilding company that usually supplies vessels for the Indonesian Navy, more known to its language as the Tentara Nasional Indonesia - Angkatan Laut or abbreviated as TNI-AL.

This being said, gives an idea regarding the viability for the country in terms of having hospital ships such as the ones that Indonesia obtains wherein it goes helpful in dealing with the battle wounded especially that both the Philippines and Indonesia shares common similarity with regards to their respective geographic setup.

Add to that the vulnerability that the Republic of the Philippines is against natural calamities as it is usually being bombarded by series of Typhoons passing to the country year by year as it wreaks damage to properties as well as inflicting casualties and wounded to the affected citizenry, along with other calamities that also taking place in the country such as earthquakes that may render similar outcome against affected people in areas hit by these naturally-inflicted phenomena.

Now, as the time of this writing, comes another public health situation which is something that is being addressed and mitigated in a sense that it also interconnects with the idea of it being part of national defense in a sense that each individual's health safety is important especially in the light of a pandemic.

It is with a public health crisis that an idea of having hospital ships in a navy fleet is seeing its utmost potential as it may not only help wounded personnel get treated and eventually being returned back into action but also providing additional support in areas that additional medical attention with regards to facilities that may go accommodate a lot of sick people.

On this topic, we will discuss the details regarding the idea that surrounds hospital ships, as well dwelling on the perspectives on its operations serving several nations' navies that obtain such kind of vessels as well as on its application in the localized, Philippine setting as on its use which is worth determining across varying degrees and in areas that may find such platforms needed.

As part of curbing the coronavirus threat, the Philippines' 2GO Shipping
Lines provided its vessels for offshore quarantine use.
Image Source.
With the pandemic now filling more hospital beds especially in the case of counted persons under monitoring (abbreviated as PUM) or asymptomatic people who came home from outside the country with some coming from areas that the disease was widespread, ideas of using private Roll-on Roll-off (RORO) vessels as quarantine vessels came into mind.

That is the case for the country's 2GO Group wherein they, along with the Department of Transportation or DOTr converted two of its large passenger ships into such vessels in which it will be designed to accommodate these people from overseas which increases the capacity in terms of treating patients as well as doing their part in terms of containing the virus from the rest of the citizenry for it to be extinguished.

Given the ship's size and capacity, one gives an idea regarding the potential of having such a vessel of that scale in the Philippine Navy wherein it has got a topic from the heyday of the service branch's Strategic Sealift Vessel or SSV program as similarity shows along the way with regards to the originally-RORO based SSV program and the then-Landing Platform Dock based Multirole Vessel or MRV program.

With the built of such ships, Landing Platform Docks like those in Indonesia with its South-Korean designed Makassar-class LPDs and the Philippines with its large naval ships (Tarlac-class) derived from it is designed and constructed in similar commercial standards as the ships operated by the country's shipping lines like 2GO where it is something that goes correlated to the current functions of the aforementioned shipping line's two Roll-on Roll-off vessels as quarantine platforms to the dedicated Hospital Ships like what Indonesia currently obtains.

It is here that the idea of prospective dedicated hospital ships or an additional multipurpose landing platform dock is seen as worth considering given that it may help provide that needed capability for the Philippine Navy not only with regards to treating the wounded offshore and providing medical care in areas that lack facilities for the health of the people but also with regards of giving that additional capacity especially in times such as a worse calamity that hit a country.

Moreover, it also gives some insight in terms of having reserve capacity through tapping civilian vessels coming from shipping lines like 2GO as it may go handy in these dire times as well as in other areas of concern where it is needed as it augments and complements large platforms that the Philippine Navy obtains where various roles from sealift operations to these medical platforms doing the job at hand.

Hence, with the pandemic-related situation at the mind as well as future natural calamities and conflicts getting along as a consideration, here goes the idea of having large vessels like the current Tarlac-class Landing Platform Docks of the Philippine Navy as well as it being augmented of large, similar ships with several of those being dedicated as offshore hospital platforms that takes care of the wounded and the sick in areas needed.

KRI Dr. Soeharso, KRI Tanjung Tapele, TNI-AL.
Indonesia's first Landing Platform Dock which is now a Hospital Ship,
KRI Dr. Soeharso. 
Image Source.
One may ask: How come we are discussing the Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia - Tentara Laut)'s hospital ships where the main topic covers the idea of having such said vessels in the Philippine Navy? The answer lies in the mere fact that aside from being close neighbors with each other, both of these nations share the same geographical setup being an archipelago as they share many island groups with their respective inhabitants.

And in the case of Indonesia, they obtain a significant number of hospital ships in their Naval fleet which in a sense may provide the idea to the Philippines on obtaining similar vessels as the country is prone to Typhoons with occasional occurrence of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as well as having a double in terms of carrying capacity that involves wounded personnel along with the usual capabilities of conducting amphibious operations given that its design functions at double as a landing platform dock.

Most of these Indonesian Navy Landing Platform Docks, as well as Hospital Ships, were either produced in South Korea such as in the case of the KRI Dr. Soeharso Hospital Ship and the Makassar-class Landing Platform Docks and in Indonesia through its shipbuilder PT PAL Persero who built the Banjarmasin-class and Tarlac-class Landing Platform Docks wherein the design cues were derived from the South Korean shipbuilding companies that built such ships to the Indonesian Navy fleet like the Dae Sun Shipbuilding and Engineering Co.

Currently, the Indonesian Navy obtains six Landing Platform Docks with two specialized on its function as a Hospital Ship like as mentioned, giving an idea to the extent of the country's naval logistics capabilities exhibited with these ships along with other types of vessels in their services such as their Teluk Bintuni-class Landing Ship Tank Vessels and the Telik Gilimanuk-class Landing Ship Medium which comes at numbers on their current fleet composition.

The numbers that the Indonesians have in terms of their logistics fleet, especially on their Landing Platform Docks with several of those specialized into Hospital Ships, are larger than the numbers that the Philippine Navy currently has in service, something which gives it an idea to add more platforms for logistics as well as for offshore medical purposes.

Read more: The Necessity of Having Military Cargo Platforms for Logistics and HADR Operations - January 26, 2020.

So, with the Indonesians having such kind of platform in their nation that also consists of islands like the Philippines gives the leverage on the rationale that surrounds this idea in a sense that with the vulnerable geographic position that the country sits in, obtaining such platforms may support the efforts of an area affected by natural calamities to get immediate help which is followed by a long process of recovery.

USS Benewah, RPS Hospital ng Tulungan
The Philippine Navy, on its history, obtained a hospital ship named
RPS Hospital ng Tulungan which was a former USS Benewah, a barracks
ship of the Philippine Navy built after the Second World War.
Image Source.
The plans on having such assets are not surprising, given that the Philippine Navy also obtained a hospital ship in the 1970s which bears the name "RPS Hospital ng Tulungan" which is essentially the former U.S. Navy Barracks ship named as the USS Benewah (APB-35), a 100-meter long vessel wherein it served in action on both Korean and Vietnam wars.

Currently, the Philippine Navy is sticking to its plans of procuring two more Landing Platform Docks under the procurement program named the Landing Docks Acquisition Project wherein it will supplement the first two large Tarlac-class vessels in the fleet, complying with the requirement of having at least four (4) Strategic Sealift Vessels or Landing Platform Docks actively serving the military branch by the year 2028, a goal set in the entire Armed Forces of the Philippines with its current Modernization Program.

More unto that, the government recently also repurpose the presidential yacht into a medical ship which is in itself shows an indication of a need for such a vessel during a crisis, although there are some notes worth considering that an offshore vessel such as a medical ship may also render as that very catalyst for a disease or a pandemic like the COVID-19 to spread on the people onboard which may get discussed as this article gets along.

Tarlac-class Landing Platform Docks like the BRP Tarlac LD-601 and BRP Davao del Sur LD-602 obtain a dedicated hospital facility as part of its configuration as a primary platform utilized by the Navy for Search and Rescue operations, giving an idea to its multirole capabilities as intended from the original Multirole Vessel or MRV program up to the revised Strategic Sealift Vessel project which produced the Tarlac-class vessels in a manner that it is meant to be utilized on deploying troops and equipment during wartime while catering the wounded and supplying relief goods to those in need during natural calamities that have prevalent in the country.

It will not be that surprising either in the case of the Landing Docks Acquisition Project wherein it shares attributes with the Tarlac-class vessels, rendering these platforms as a primary benchmark for the Philippine Navy to embark on the project with similarities or improvements being implied on these prospective platforms over existing ones with the capability of having configured as a hospital ship or obtaining such facilities onboard as part of its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response capabilities.

Just to take some notes on the prospect planning for the service branch's plans for having a Hospital Ship on its fleet, an article from Jakarta Post which was posted July 15, 2017, provided insight regarding the purchase of at least three more Strategic Sealift Vessels with two apparently being materialized at present under the Landing Docks Project and another one dedicated for a hospital ship as discussed here which totals the number of Landing Platform Docks projected in the fleet to around five (5) units.

That renders four multirole landing platform docks doing both amphibious operations and support for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response or HADR with one vessel dedicated apparently for a medical ship whose primary purpose is on the capacity of getting wounded personnel in combat immediate medical attention along with the role as a complementary platform for HADR as land-based hospitals may render as either overcapacity or damaged during a calamity.

USNS Comfort, New York City, Statue of Liberty, 9/11
An image of the USNS Comfort deployed in New York during the 9/11
attacks. Almost a decade later, the same ship will be deployed in

the area as part of coping up against the pandemic.

(c) US Navy Photo by 1st Class Preston Keres, via Navy Live website.
While having hospital ships in a fleet is seen as an ideal thing in terms of getting wounded military frontline personnel taking care of and for humanitarian assistance/disaster response kind of deployment, it is not always the case in a manner that the disadvantages of having them are also worth discussing, getting on weighing the pros and cons for obtaining these platforms in a situation.

The risk that faces the threat of treating infected individuals on board a hospital ship is on how contagious the platform has become to the extent that it also spreads to other individuals such as the crews onboard just like in the case of a cruise ship named the Diamond Princess that infected many passengers onboard in Japan or in the case of ever-capable Aircraft Carriers such as the French Flagship Charles de Gaulle and the United States Navy's USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Carl Vinson with their own share of crew infections.'

Having these infections onboard a luxurious vessel or even the most powerful asset that a nation's navy utilizes shows a lot about the formidability of this medical threat in a sense that it hampers defense operations in a manner that the same may apply on any other vessel such as a hospital ship and its crew that may render its duty in coping up against the coronavirus pandemic.

One scenario involving the crew of a hospital ship being infected is the USNS Mercy (TAH-19) in which several of the personnel assigned onboard were discovered positive for the coronavirus, something that is worth noted regarding the measures on dealing infected onboard especially on the ventilation systems as a vessel lacking such airflow may render its susceptibility in infecting more people onboard - rendering the commanding officer to have the hospital personnel onboard to disembark the vessel as part of their measure to contain any further prospective infections on the medical ship.

These things only show how contagious a ship will be for putting infected patients onboard wherein without any measures will place may render it as a multiplier of cases as that measure makes things a bit more harmful than the benefit that the vessels are to be benefited in the first place especially in the case of hospital ships.

The BRP Tarlac itself, being multipurpose in nature
may also serve as a hospital ship with its medical
facilities onboard the ship.
One idea regarding the alternatives for a hospital ship is in line with the additional two vessels under the Landing Docks Acquisition Project, as well as the first two vessels under the original SSV program wherein these ships are both configured on their original multirole operations, applicable for both combat and HADR situations.

In the case of the current pandemic, multiple nations deployed their respective vessels of different classes such as the Mistral Landing Helicopter Docks of France for its overseas departments, the UK with its Auxillary Ship Argus to the Caribbean, and the Netherlands with its Karel Doorman Landing Platform Dock to its domain.

That only shows that multirole vessels of any sort such as the aforementioned platforms above may also get hand in hand for operation overseas, wherein large vessels like Landing Platform Docks may also serve wounded troops on board in case of combat in a manner that medical facilities are provided and will cater personnel with care as it is essential to preserve manpower needed to fight another day.

From there, it is seen that said platforms that are not dedicatedly designed as a hospital ship in the first place may also render such functions in a sense that it gives the full sense of being a multirole vessel, dismissing an idea for a dedicated hospital ship altogether. 

Nevertheless, having hospital ships are something that comes with increased bed capacity and additional medical facilities that may help augment the capacities that multirole Landing Platform Docks like the Tarlac-class obtained and designed for.

It is in this knowledge and idea that hospital ships may have come along with the idea of adding more logistics platform like the Landing Platform Docks in a manner that both may go hand in hand together on terms that involve deploying a large number of troops in the battleground while gathering wounded personnel on the way, as well as getting similar things in terms of natural calamities and humanitarian assistance.

BRP Davao del Sur, Landing Platform Dock, Philippine Navy, PT Pal Indonesia.
BRP Davao del Sur on a drydock during its construction in
PT PAL facility is situated in Surabaya, Indonesia.
The plans for having hospital ships have already existed in the Philippine Navy since the 1970s with the RPS Hospital ng Tulungan, and it is definitely not surprising if this maritime component of the Armed Forces of the Philippines reconsiders it in the time that it also procures additional Landing Platform Docks in its fleet.

Obtaining such dedicated assets may define a lot for the morale of the troops in combat as it gives them the assurance that there will be an offshore hospital ship standing by for the troops in the frontline in case they ended up terribly wounding, preferably saving more lives with its accessibility while retaining the manpower needed for these troops to fight another day.

Indonesia with its several hospital ships serving its fleet may serve as a nice preference for the Philippine Navy to have in terms of obtaining such assets where its function further augment the capacity of any prospective ships in the fleet in catering wounded people in combat and also being a mainstay platform in areas affected by natural calamities such as earthquakes and typhoons that the country is vulnerable of.

However, it is worth noting that additional multirole vessels such as two more units of Landing Platform Docks on its current project may obtain that capability as these vessels usually come with a medical facility onboard that doubles the vessel's role in a way that reduces the relevance of having a dedicated vessel like a hospital ship.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen as to the plans of the service branch on these dedicated platforms as to whether it will push through or not as it goes along with the procurement of additional Landing Platform Docks in the fleet, wherein plans call for 5 units of such large vessels in the fleet with one dedicated as a hospital ship.

It is on these plans that the Philippine Navy may see whether it gets materialized or not, as obtaining such assets may go as important as its other vessels serving in the fleet like the primary combat vessels of the Del Pilar-class Offshore Patrol Vessels and Jose Rizal-class Missile Frigates, in a manner that all of these plans may define a more capable organization along with other branches of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.


Danny Scott said...
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Anonymous said...

A dedicated hospital ship is vital to a large scale military operations. Aside from having an increase number of beds and increase soldiers morale, etc., a Hospital ships are protected by international law, an attack of these ships is considered as war crime, these ships has large red cross symbol indicating that they are indeed a military hospital ship. Military hospital ships are primarily for war missions treating wounded soldiers and such, it is not designed for treating highly contagious diseases even worst if it is in large scale like covid 19, it can be converted to support such emergencies but not primarily. But of course in peace time ships like Tarlac class being multirole can be use in humanitarian missions and as you have mentioned it can use its medical facility for a limited medical mission but not for contiguous diseases. If the government really insist in using military ships to fight Covid 19 then they have to have a dedicated highly controlled hospital ships designed for treating covid 19 thereby protecting soldiers/non-medical personnel from getting infected. A ship as a quarantine facility is a good idea for isolation but one can easily expect that any contiguous diseases can easily spread in such small platform therefore all attending personnel in the ship medical or not must be highly trained for this type of mission to minimize infections if not avoided. In peace time any military ship can be a hospital ship as long as they have the capability, but in war time a nation may need these type of asset designed solely for this purpose to avoid direct conflict with opposing party. Our nation the Philippines will need this asset at any given time especially when we continuously faced threats from our neighboring nations.

Anonymous said...

A hospital ship doesn't make sense at this point as land-based hospitals are cheaper to operate. A hospital ship will need scarce funds to build, operate and maintain - funds that are better used at the moment to acquire combat capabilities, upgrade existing ones or build up stocks of ordnance and munitions.

A portable 30 to 60-bed field hospital transportable in two or three C-130 sorties makes better sense

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